Seductive cinematography creates suspense in ‘Stranger by the Lake’

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From the opening long shots of the picturesque French lake with the camera panning toward the shimmering shores, the lake acts as the film’s central stage, masking its unadorned beauty with a mystery that lies just beneath the surface. In Alain Guiraudie’s film “Stranger by the Lake,” the lakeside beach is the cruising spot for mostly gay males to not only sunbathe and swim but also engage in casual flings in the dense forest that surrounds the beach.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a confident and striking young man who frequently indulges in these cruises. He sees a few familiar faces but mostly nameless strangers with the same interest of seeking companionship. However, he meets and befriends Henri (Patrick D’Assumcao), a man uninterested in sex or swimming, who prefers sitting apathetically near the shore on the other side of the beach.

Guiraudie portrays the short but meaningful scenes between Franck and Henri with long takes that highlight the abilities of the actors while revealing the mannerisms of the characters. Initially, Franck is sympathetic of Henri, who is recently divorced and spends his vacation days lying by the lake. However, Franck becomes almost impressed by Henri’s complacency with being alone while he constantly seeks out approval from others in the beach while cruising.

Franck meets Michel (Christophe Paou), a stereotypical embodiment of the tall, dark and handsome man trope. Blessed with a thick mustache and a chiseled tan body, Michel quickly seduces Franck, but Franck becomes concerned with Michel’s fiercely independent and promiscuous nature. Their passionate affair quickly becomes complicated after Franck witnesses a man drowning another person in the middle of the lake at night.

This pivotal scene begins with two men swimming together. As the two are wrestling, the playful yells turn quickly into screams for help as one head disappears under the water and another emerges and swims toward the shore. This sequence of events, all shot in one take from the wide-angled perspective of Franck looking from the woods, features Guiraudie’s great attention to detail in recreating a sense of tension and voyeurism in a drowning scene.

The film clearly positions Michel as the prime suspect due to his mysterious and callous demeanor. He tells Franck he’s not even upset that someone died in the lake. Franck’s continued relationship with Michel examines the film’s dialectical interplay between sexual lust and danger. In one scene, Franck swims to the middle of the lake to Michel, and as the two embrace, the camera shifts to the same perspective as in the drowning scene. The close resemblance between scenes disturbs the viewers and serves as a premonition to the dangerous territory Franck is heading toward.

The film also features some of the most explicit sex scenes, sparing no expense at showing close up shots of naked male bodies. These scenes are not entirely gratuitous, as they are able to show the seductive nature of these hedonistic ventures. The silhouette shots of Franck and Michel on the beach are beautiful but also tantalizing due to the conditions of this brief relationship. Shots of men making love are concealed partly by the leaves and branches, with the sunlight flickering alongside parts of the body to give a sense of intimacy and exhibitionism.

“Strangers by the Lake” is a beautiful film not necessarily in its writing or characters but in its grand execution. Guiraudie composes vignettes of the lakeshore beach delicately with well-defined shots and an interesting juxtaposition of sex scenes. Within the confines of the lake, these scenes showcase the brief evocative moments between men enchanted by the passion of casual encounters but also acknowledging the perils of anonymity.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].